Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

Matthew 28
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Unnatural but not unprecedented.

It seems quite unnatural that we are apart on Easter Sunday. Giving up church for the end of Lent—if that’s what we did—was strange enough, but missing the Queen of Sundays is hard to bear. But bear we must, remembering that we have done this before.

From September to November 1918, the Spanish Flu ravaged our city. Boards of Health across Canada took the same stringent measures we are experiencing today: churches were closed, along with schools, entertainment venues, public meetings and the like. And there was push-back. When one downtown pastor complained about the order to close, he got a rebuke from Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, who suggested that the minister needed “a truer conception of God’s relationship to man and of man’s humanity to man.”

Mostly, though, churches and fraternal organizations got on with the business of serving others. An example: at what is now Central Tech, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire set up a kitchen, sending out 675 quarts of custard, 899 quarts of broth, 147 quarts of lemonade, and 689 quarts of gruel over the course of the outbreak. If you’re tired of pasta, imagine a diet of custard, broth, lemonade and gruel.

So this is not the first time we’ve closed for an extended period. And while this may be the first Easter we have missed, we are challenged by a chorus of theologians to remember that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” All the Sundays that preceded this time, and all the Sundays that follow this time will be Easters, and we will celebrate the resurrection with the same fervour as we would if we were together today. Christ is Risen!

Today we read Matthew’s account of the empty tomb. It isn’t the shortest (Luke) but isn’t the longest either (John). Angels appear, as they do in the others, but Jesus doesn’t appear in Matthew as he does in John. The basic outline is the same: the women discover that Jesus has risen, and they become the first messengers to the resurrection. They receive the essential message (“He is risen!”) and they pass it on.

Yet Matthew gives us an additional gift, by recording part of the emotion of the day. In the midst of his telling, he shares this: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Afraid yet filled with joy. Ponder that for a moment. It’s hard to hold these two emotions at once, but this is the power of resurrection. The birth of belief is exciting but fearful. It inspires awe—not sunset awe—but fear and trembling awe, like standing on holy ground.

So let’s stay here for a moment: the resurrection is the birth of belief. First, Jesus is the touchstone of righteous living. Then, Jesus’ death on the cross defeats the power of death over our lives. But the resurrection—the empty tomb—is the beginning of belief. The meaning is not fully-formed (that will come in time) but the women who leave this moment with fear and joy were the first believers, the first to understand that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Therefore, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.38-39)

This love, manifest in Jesus, and completed at the empty tomb, means that every one of us is a messenger of the resurrection. To have belief, to embrace the fear and joy of this event, transforms us into Easter people. It defines us, it animates our fellowship, and connects us to a cloud of witnesses—from those first women down to today. He is risen!

It is bittersweet, of course, to talk about fellowship and connection in the time of COVID-19. It’s hard to feel like a community when we can’t meet. And to this bittersweet sense, I want to add another layer to our resurrection story: “the church invisible.” Remember that chorus of theologians who called every Sunday a little Easter? They also want us to think about the nature of the church in the world.

St. Augustine had a first look at the question of the ‘church invisible,’ complaining that when the Roman empire became Christian it became harder to spot the Christians. Later, Luther and others made a distinction between the church that needed reforming and the believers that wanted reform: the church invisible. Last century, Karl Barth took up the topic and said “we do not believe in the Church; but we do believe that in this congregation the work of the Holy Spirit becomes an event.”**

In other words, the ‘church visible’ is the one that is not meeting at this moment, but the ‘church invisible’ is very much alive. The Holy Spirit holds us together: united in belief, sustained by love, afraid yet filled with joy. Like the time immediately following the resurrection, we experience longing, separation, fear, and joy. We feel these emotions all at once, and we take solace in the knowledge that nothing can truly separate us—from each other—or the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

**Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in A North American Context, p. 106


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